So Nevers set up a sports-consulting business, but when the main chance came, in the form of a two-page flyer announcing the proposed formation of the WBL, Nevers rounded up nine other investors and plunged. At the end of the first year his enterprise had lost the $270,000, not the worst deficit in the league but not the best financial record either. The best—if you can really call it that—was Chicago's loss of only about $250,000.
Attendance at Fillies home games had averaged around 1,000 for the 1978-79 season. Operating by trial and error, Nevers cut and traded his way through some 20 players and three coaches in one season, filling the gaps between coaches himself. With Wilson the only original player remaining. Minnesota finished the season 17-17, and Nevers, of all people, had the best coaching record, 8-2.
Last spring Nevers hired Kunze, a 6'7" lantern-jawed associate coach at East Carolina University and a native of Duluth, to come home to Minnesota and coach the Fillies into a real team. Kunze played for the University of Minnesota in the mid-'60s and after that spent a year with the doomed Minnesota Muskies of the ABA.
The Fillies approached their second season with renewed financial backing and an optimism tempered by the experiences of the first. "I thought everybody would come once and then come again," says Nevers. "But it didn't happen that way. You have to develop an identity for a product."
One way to develop such an identity is to spend a lot of money, which is what the Kicks of the NASL did when they opened for business in the Twin Cities four years ago. The Kicks' backers hired a local ad agency and then relied heavily on the ad men's advice. "The agency decided we had to sell soccer, not the Kicks," says Freddy Goodwin, the Englishman who is the team's president. "We picked a theme—Minnesota joins the world—and we advertised each game as a big event."
Except for a small profit their second year, the Kicks have yet to make money, but they've drawn large crowds from the start—they averaged 28,000 last season. Because they draw people, the Kicks also draw attention from the press and, thanks in large part to the media coverage, they draw still more people.
This happy symbiosis has so far eluded the Fillies. At the beginning, the "organization" was made up of Nevers, his office manager and right arm, 23-year-old Shirley Tesch, and the coach of the moment. There was no money for ad agencies and little for advertising, so Nevers depended on whatever publicity he could generate in the local media to draw the attention he could not afford to buy. Television and radio news shows found useful feature material in the Fillies and paid them a reasonable amount of attention. The four major newspapers—two in Minneapolis, two in St. Paul—did not. The morning Minneapolis Tribune, the most influential of the four, especially did not.
"Sometimes it seems totally unfair," says Fillies Forward Kathy DeBoer. "You're tired and beat up and bruised and you're awake all night because you're still so hyper, and when you open the paper in the morning, there's not even a box score saying what you did the night before."
Though Nevers has sworn off criticizing the sporting press this season, saying, "If our papers are not proud of the fact that we have one of the 12 WBL franchises, you can't make them proud," he still rankles at the treatment the Fillies have gotten—or not gotten—at the hands of sportswriters. "They began by saying we were not going to make it and then substantiated their verdict by not writing about us," he says.
Through all this, the Fillies have continued to play basketball, better this season than last and better most weeks than the week before. Kunze's coaching has been a large part of the difference. Nevers' trades have been another. The fact that the players love the game and will work hard without much urging is yet another. Last week the Fillies were still fighting the Cornets for first place and, short of an allout slump, they could wind up winning their division. They have height, strength and a number of good shooters. When they win, they usually have at least four scorers in double figures. They lack speed but they make up for it with good team play. They do not have a star, like Ann Meyers of New Jersey or Bolin of Iowa; but unlike those teams, the Fillies can go to their bench and not come up empty-handed. They are already one of the three best teams in the league, and now with Trish Roberts, a 6'1" center and 1976 Olympian, back in the lineup following two knee operations last year, Minnesota should be able to handle not only Iowa but the Eastern Division-leading New York Stars as well.